Saudi Arabia, the world’s foremost oil exporter, wants to win at an entirely different pursuit as well: control of the most popular sports around. Its effective takeover of golf’s PGA tour is only one piece of that ambition.
As Saudi Arabia looks to diversify beyond oil, or at least to “wash” its image free of the taint of fossil fuels and meagre human rights, the kingdom has been amping up its investments in sports. While its special focus has been soccer, other sports are on its radar. From golf to cricket to basketball, Saudi Arabia is keen to make a play all over, so as to clothe itself in the decorous, apolitical garb of international sports. And the sporting world, for its part, is eager to yield to the sheer volumes of money that Saudi Arabis is pouring into its ambition.
⛳ Golf: Yesterday (June 6), the US PGA Tour announced a shock merger with the Saudi-bankrolled LIV Golf. The two tournament organizers were formerly rivals, and had been embroiled in battles—legal and otherwise—over poaching players, dividing fans, monopolistic behavior, broadcast rights, and more. All of that rancor ends with this deal.
⚽ Soccer: In October 2021, Saudi Arabia led a consortium that bought Newcastle United, marking the country’s entry into the valuable, fanatically followed English Premier League. Then, six months ago, Cristiano Ronaldo agreed to move to Al Nassr, a Saudi Arabian club, for a fat paycheck of $200 million per year for two seasons. That was just the start of the kingdom’s grab of football heavyweights. Yesterday (June 6), the Real Madrid club captain Karim Benzema formally joined Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad—which is also the team that the Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kanté is reportedly close to signing with as well. Rumors are rife that a deal with Lionel Messi is likely in the offing, too, for a reported $1 billion over two years.
Separately, Saudi is weighing a bid to host the FIFA 2030 World Cup with Greece and Egypt, even offering to fund stadium construction in the two countries if they allow the kingdom to host three-quarters of the matches. The vote on who hosts the 2030 tournament isn’t until September 2024.
? Formula 1: The Saudi Arabian oil giant Aramco is the joint title sponsor for the Aston Martin F1 team. McLaren signed a strategic partnership with Neom, the upcoming $500 billion planned city in the desert. Saudi Arabia is hopeful that either McLaren or Aston Martin will make the country their home base. That will give Saudi Arabia opportunities to “manufacture cars or technology, to create our own brands and have our own IPs [intellectual property rights],” Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al Faisal, the president of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, told the trade publication Motor Sport in January.
Earlier this year, reports claimed that Saudi Arabia was trying to buy the Formula 1 tournament outright for $20 billion but the Saudi sports minister dismissed this as “purely speculation.”
? Boxing: To establish itself in the world of bozing, Saudi Arabia is looking to host a four-boxer mega-money event this winter, starring Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua, Oleksandr Usyk, and Deontay Wilder. The war chest to fund the event holds almost $250 million. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has also been paying attention to female boxers.
? Basketball: In December 2022, the National Basketball Association (NBA) decided to allow sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, and endowments to buy stakes in its basketball teams. Saudi Arabia hasn’t announced its interest in any of the teams—yet.
? Cricket: Saudi Arabia is reportedly planning to set up a newer, richer Twenty20 cricket tournament, along the lines of the hyper-successful Indian Premier League (IPL), and wants star cricketers like Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma to participate. Saudi Arabian representatives reportedly met officials at the Board of Control for Cricket in India officials to work together on the idea.
Saudi Arabia was chosen to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games last October. The country, predominantly a hot desert, will organize the event in the year-round winter sports complex to be built in the futuristic city of Neom. Five years later, the Saudi capital of Riyadh will host the 2034 Asian Games. These are all intended to be stepping stones, though. Hosting the Olympics is the “ultimate goal” for the country, Al-Faisal has said.
Using sports as an instrument of soft power is common, but in Saudi Arabia’s case, human rights experts warn that the country is “sportswashing” itself.
The big-money buys—be it players, teams, or tournaments—can serve as glitzy distractions from the dark underbelly of labour exploitation, corruption, and ill-treatment of minorities like the LGBTQ+ community.
The Saudi regime has been accused of violating women’s rights, harboring 9/11 terrorists, and masterminding the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist. As a result, sports stars and organizers who accept Saudi money have drawn plenty of flak. A group called 9/11 Families United, made up of survivors of the 9/11 attack or families of those who died, called the PGA Tour’s decision to merge with LIV Golf a betrayal. “It appears their concern for our loved ones was merely window-dressing in their quest for money,” the chair of the group said.
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